Shelley Somers — unanimously picked by a search committee as the only finalist candidate for the principalship of Staples High School — met with parents and other Westporters this morning.
She sat with students during lunch, and will meet with administrators and staff members later today. The Board of Education — all 7 of whose members were at this morning’s forum — will meet in executive session at 5:30 p.m. today to discuss Somers’ candidacy.
This morning, after superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon noted Somers’ qualifications — English teacher, department chair, assistant principal and head of an arts, communications and technology school in 2 South Carolina districts; current principal at Central Middle School in Greenwich, where she was recently named Connecticut PTA Middle School Principal of the Year — she stepped up to the podium.
Somers began the session with 100 members of the public by acknowledging difficulties she had in the 1990s, when she owned a daycare center in East Granby, Connecticut. She miscounted the number of children attending an event, causing one child to remain in a vehicle.
“It’s still very difficult for me to talk about this,” Somers said. It has caused her “sadness and shame,” but also shaped her life today.
“I dot all my i’s and cross all my t’s,” she said. “This has taught me humility. I understand the importance of seeking help, gaining trust and moving on. I go to sleep with this at night, and wake up with it in the morning. I carry this with me in my heart. It has helped me very much, as an educator and a person.”
Somers noted that being principal is a “complex job.” She said that while in previous administrative positions she was hired to “fix things,” her role at Staples would be “to take a great school and figure out how to make it greater. You don’t do that by sitting in your office.”
Being a principal requires “a good ear,” she said — something she has learned to develop not only with students, but her own 4 daughters.
A questioner asked how she would adapt to Staples.
“I’m an educator,” Somers replied. “I don’t see myself as ‘a middle school principal.’ I have experience at all levels, as a teacher and an administrator. I’ve learned a lot about how to make good decisions.
“It was never my intent to stay in middle school — though I love it dearly,” she added.
At Central, she said, “I walked into a building with challenges. I spent a lot of time listening. I knew just being optimistic would not be enough.”
She cited her “open door policy. Parents knew I was there to help them and their children navigate the middle schools years. Parents learned I was a student advocate.”
Somers drew applause when — in response to a question about the Smarter Balance testing that was introduced this year — she said, “I don’t think junior year is the best place to put it.”
She reiterated her focus on students. “They’re the reason I got into education,” Somers said. “I am accessible to them. That’s number one with me.”
In reply to a question about a principal’s priorities, she said her top three are physical and emotional safety; availability and listening; and instructional leadership.
One questioner wondered about the “learning curve” needed for a new principal in a new school.
“Sure,” she agreed. “But I am prepared to make decisions.” She said she would talk to current principal John Dodig, and recognized the “strong administrative staff and student support teams” already in place.
Finally, someone asked Somers about the future. “I have younger kids,” the parent said. “I’ll be here for the next decade.”
“So will I,” she replied.